Computer Program Searches Web Forums for Drug Side Effects
A new computer program aims to uncover rare drug side effects by searching for people's complaints on web forums and social media.
CREDIT: From the National Institutes of Health
A new computer program, still in development, seeks to uncover rare side effects for prescription drugs by searching for people's complaints on web forums, Twitter and other places online. The programmers hope to identify rare side effects for drugs on the market even before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration catches them.
Before prescription drugs go on the market in the U.S., they undergo FDA-required tests to find the side effects they cause. It's difficult to perform large enough studies to find very rare side effects, however, so the FDA relies on doctors, patients and pharmaceutical companies to report additional side effects after a drug is sold and widely used. When the agency gets enough reports about a side effect, it performs its own investigation and publishes warnings.
University of Virginia information scientist Ahmed Abbasi and his team wanted to see if they could speed the FDA's process, which some experts say is too slow, the Wall Street Journal reported. Abbasi and his colleagues wrote a computer program that searches forums, tweets, online news stories and other websites for comments about drug side effects.
To test their program, they applied it to web postings dated between 2000 and 2012. They found that for 80 percent of drugs, the program spotted problems months to years before the FDA issued warnings, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Abbasi and his colleagues will now need to make sure their program takes into account the reliability of the websites it culls from, Jerry Avorn, a pharmaceutical safety expert at Harvard Medical School, told the Associated Press. "I think we need to understand to what extent those reports might be either exaggerated or distorted," he said.
Abbasi isn't the only computer programmer looking to help the FDA learn about side effects more quickly. TechNewsDaily previously wrote about a program in development that searches doctors' and patients' reports to the FDA and its Canadian counterpart. The FDA also has its own computer-assisted effort. The agency has been slowly deploying a searchable database, called Sentinel, that includes data from electronic health record systems, insurance claims databases and other major databases.